Golden Retriever Takes the Stand in New York Criminal Trial

A golden retriever named Rosie recently became the first judicially approved dog allowed in the witness box for the purpose of comforting a witness while she testifies:

Rosie, the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York, was in the witness box here nuzzling a 15-year-old girl who was testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her. Rosie sat by the teenager’s feet. At particularly bad moments, she leaned in….

Now an appeal planned by the defense lawyers is placing Rosie at the heart of a legal debate that will test whether there will be more Rosies in courtrooms in New York and, possibly, other states.

Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog who specializes in comforting people when they are under stress….

[Defense] lawyers, David S. Martin and Steven W. Levine of the public defender’s office, have raised a series of objections that they say seems likely to land the case in New York’s highest court. They argue that as a therapy dog, Rosie responds to people under stress by comforting them, whether the stress comes from confronting a guilty defendant or lying under oath.

But they say jurors are likely to conclude that the dog is helping victims expose the truth. “Every time she stroked the dog,” Mr. Martin said in an interview, “it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth.”

“There was no way for me to cross-examine the dog,” Mr. Martin added.

My wife and I recently acquired a golden retriever puppy, and we love the breed as much as anyone. Nonetheless, I think there is some merit to the defense lawyers’ concerns. A witness with a cute golden retriever sitting next to her almost always makes a better impression on people than the same witness sans retriever – whether or not she is telling the truth. Every time I walk around the neighborhood with our little Willow, I certainly notice people reacting a lot more favorably than they do when I walk there by myself. You don’t have to be a criminal law expert to recognize that people respond favorably to cute dogs. That’s why they’re such popular pets in the first place.

Does that prove that dogs should be categorically banned from the witness stand? Perhaps not. But it certainly suggests that their presence should be restricted as much as possible and at most limited to cases where there services are absolutely essential, as in the case of seeing-eye dogs, for example.